Year Zero: The making of Zinedine Zidane (Juventus, 1996/97)
In the first of our new weekly series examining the turning point in the careers of great footballers, we begin with Zinedine Zidane in 1996/97.
Zinedine Zidane had been warned. Before agreeing to join Juventus in 1996, he phoned up Didier Deschamps - already a fixture in the Bianconeri’s midfield - for advice on what he could expect in Turin. His France team-mate spoke enthusiastically about the club, about Serie A, and about the manager Marcello Lippi. But he also mentioned a fitness coach by the name of Giampiero Ventrone.
Often I would be at the point of vomiting by the end, because I was so tired
By the end of that summer, Zidane would understand of why Juve’s players more often referred to this particular tormentor as the ‘Professor Marine’. “Deschamps did tell me about the training sessions but I just didn’t believe they could be as bad as all that,” he later confessed to the Italian media. “Often I would be at the point of vomiting by the end, because I was so tired.”
Even making it to the finish was an achievement in itself. Ventrone used to hang a ‘bell of shame’ wherever Juventus trained, to be rung by the first player who quit - as some inevitably did - unable to stay the course.
Zidane, though, was no shirker. He had come to Juventus because he wanted to push himself, not stay at Bordeaux and win, in his words, “the cup of nothing”. Those grim afternoons spent dry-heaving beside a practice pitch in Pinzolo were the precursor to something much better.
This would be the season when a skinny 24-year-old took his definitive turn towards superstardom; the one where Zidane became Zidane.
Greatness and destiny
It can be tempting, for those of us who have never competed in elite level sport, to believe that greatness is bestowed on an athlete rather than earned. Italians even have a word, ‘predestinato’, to describe those individuals who appear to have been destined from the start for great things.
There is no question that Zidane had rare natural gifts – childhood friends joked that he seemed to have “a hand in place of his foot” – and yet there are countless stories out there of similarly precocious youngsters who never make good on their talent.
The late Blackburn chairman Jack Walker is said to have argued that he had no need for Zidane “because we have Tim Sherwood”
Zidane had played in a UEFA Cup final and represented France at a European Championship in the year before he joined Juventus, but he was still a very long way from winning a Ballon d’Or.
There are countless tales of clubs who supposedly turned down the chance to sign him. In 1995, the late Blackburn chairman Jack Walker is said to have argued that he had no need for Zidane “because we have Tim Sherwood”. Ahead of the 1996/97 campaign, football agent Barry Silkman claimed to have offered the player to Newcastle, only to be told that their scouts didn’t even think he would be good enough for the English second tier.
Such stories are most likely apocryphal, and should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. But it is true that Juventus’s 7.5bn lira (roughly £3.2m) investment in the player was criticised in Italy. The deal with Bordeaux had been struck before Euro 96, where Zidane performed poorly and became a scapegoat for France’s semi-final defeat to the Czech Republic.
He continued to struggle through his first few months at Juventus, too. Ironically, given his difficulties keeping up with Ventrone’s fitness programme, the newspaper La Repubblica described him as “a cross-country runner chucked into the middle of a pack of possessed sprinters”.
In part, Zidane was a victim of poorly chosen tactics. Perceived as a replacement for Paulo Sousa, he was slotted into the middle of Lippi’s 4-3-3 - a deep-lying playmaker with Deschamps and Antonio Conte serving as his muscle on either side. Zidane had a hard time imposing himself on the game from this position, too often getting bypassed altogether.